The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
Stefon Diggs hardly had toweled off and pulled on his torn blue jeans and black-and-yellow flannel shirt before a Vikings PR staffer handed him a cell phone in the locker room late last night. It was Hall-of-Fame corner and current NFL Network talking head Deion Sanders, who wanted to chat with the wide receiver about the biggest game of his young career.
After Diggs handed the phone back, the first wave of reporters came. Then another. And then another. Unlike what took place on the field at U.S. Bank Stadium all night, when he sprinted past or spun around or squeezed between Packers defenders, he was in no hurry to get away.
The last lingering reporter pointed at the clear plastic cup sitting on the shelf of his locker stall. Were the drug testers for the NFL, after watching him set career highs with nine catches and 182 receiving yards in a 17-14 win over the rival Packers, singling him out for a surprise sample?
Diggs, laughing, replied, “I’ll wait until tomorrow, just to tick them off.”
He had every right to savor the night, not because this was as good as it gets, but because this performance hinted at bigger things to come.
By dismantling the Packers secondary in primetime and then by waving goodbye to them as the Vikings ran out the clock, Diggs displayed the polish, explosiveness and flair that makes the franchise believe they stumbled upon a star in the fifth round of last year’s NFL draft. And, thanks to the help of NBC, he put the rest of the league on notice.
First, Diggs delivered a clutch catch on 4th and 2 in the second quarter after finding a soft spot in the Packers defense on a quick-hitting play.
He then went over the top of the secondary before halftime, pulling away from Packers corner Damarious Randall, picked 116 spots before him last spring, to make a diving 44-yard grab that set up a field goal.
He caught a quick throw on a crossing route in the third quarter and sped into the open field, picking up 46 yards before a trio of Packers finally corralled him. And then he capped off that drive by tapping in both feet in the back of the end zone after catching a laser from Sam Bradford.
“He’s just kind of one of those guys. When I first got here and started watching tape, he just kind of popped,” gushed Bradford, who targeted him 11 times. “You just kind of notice him. He’s always getting separation, he seems to always be finding a way to get open. Then tonight, he was pretty much unstoppable out there tonight.”
When all was said and done, Diggs came up eight receiving yards short of Randy Moss for the most by a Vikings wideout against the Packers but helped the Vikings — and thousands of fantasy football players — win.
So yeah, it is understandable that the NFL wanted to capture the, um, essence of his performance in a plastic cup to make sure it was legit.
But it mostly was a byproduct of a talented, hypercompetitive athlete who, whether he admits it or not, is furious that he got overlooked last spring. Even his hometown team, the Ravens, passed on him six times.
Diggs showed up in Minnesota last spring with a U.S. Bank Stadium-sized chip on his shoulder. He was a healthy scratch in his first three games before exploding for 87 or more receiving yards in each of his first four NFL games. Diggs would lead the team in receiving yards as a rookie.
This spring and summer, the Vikings pushed for Diggs, who was miscast as a split end in 2015, to learn the flanker and slot receiver positions. Now, they can move him all over the formation to exploit flat-footed corners who can’t match his first step or stick with him on razor-sharp routes.
You can believe the Vikings corners, after chasing him around three days a week, are relieved to see him pick on somebody in a different color.
“He’s always worked really hard,” Mike Zimmer said of the 22-year-old. “But [this year] he’s even more competitive every day in practice. Every day. I see that all the time, so maybe that’s it. I think the beginning of last year he was kind of, like a lot of rookies do, feeling their way.”
Diggs found his way last year, and now he appears on the verge of something special. He has 100-yard receiving performances with two different QBs, and with the Monday night game still left to be played, he leads the league with 285 receiving yards and is second with 16 catches.
Diggs seems likely this season to become the first Vikings player to reach 1,000 receiving yards since Sidney Rice in 2009. But he has set the bar higher. More catches. More yards. More touchdowns. More wins.
“I work hard and do things the way they’re supposed to be done just so I can have success out here,” Diggs said, adding, “I always want more.”
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Zimmer said a couple of days earlier that we should see top draft pick Laquon Treadwell against the Packers, and the wide receiver did make a brief cameo, playing two snaps on offense in his unofficial NFL debut.
2. Cornerbacks Terence Newman, Trae Waynes and Captain Munnerlyn got a workout against the Packers, who predominantly used three-wide sets. Newman played 69 out of the 71 defensive snaps while Waynes and Munnerlyn played 67 and 59, respectively. Second-round pick Mackensie Alexander played six snaps because Newman and Waynes needed quick breathers due to the Packers using their hurry-up attack on offense.
3. Another byproduct of the Packers going three-wide so much was outside linebacker Chad Greenway getting just 14 snaps. He played more than twice as many in the season-opening win over the Titans. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, meanwhile, never left the field last night.
4. Running back Adrian Peterson played 34 of the 58 offensive snaps before exiting the game in the third quarter with an injury to his right knee (Peterson will get an MRI this morning, Zimmer said). Fellow backs Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata each got a dozen snaps apiece.
5. With Sharrif Floyd missing the game with a knee injury, the Vikings gave close to equal playing time to their three active defensive tackles. Linval Joseph played 47 snaps. Shamar Stephen played 43. And Tom Johnson, who was tested for a concussion but returned to the game, played 41.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “He was dropping dimes. I don’t know where he got all those dimes from, but he found them.” — outside linebacker Anthony Barr on Bradford.
2. “Well, I liked them last week but I don’t like them tonight.” — Zimmer on the defense’s scoop-and-score mentality when it comes to loose fumbles. Defensive end Danielle returned a fumble for a TD in Week 1.
3. “I read pass.” — Waynes breaking down his game-sealing pick.
4. “He’s the best running back in the NFL. Obviously, that would be heartbreaking for us. There have been some crazy things injury-wise since I’ve been here. It’s just got to be the next man up, if that’s the case, and go from there.” — guard Brandon Fusco on the potential loss of Peterson.
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. Bradford flashed the kind of skill set that justifies the bold trade to acquire him. The Vikings wisely waited until he was ready enough before throwing him out onto the field. But once he was, they did not have the liberty of easing him in. Bradford threw 23 passes in the first half and 31 overall, completing 22 of them for 286 yards and two scores. He has been known to dink and dunk throughout his career, but he was not afraid to let it loose against the Packers, attacking the intermediate areas and going deep a few times. Bradford threw a beautiful ball to Diggs on their 44-yard connection in the second quarter and he showed his teammates something when he was willing to take a hard hit while throwing a rocket up the numbers to Diggs on his second touchdown pass. Bradford left his new teammates in awe of his poise and toughness on that big play.
2. These Vikings defenders certainly do not fear Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Many players would quiver when faced with the prospect of having to stop Rodgers not once but twice to escape with a win. Not this group, though. They have been through this before and seemed to relish getting another opportunity to shut down the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback. In last year’s season finale, the Vikings defense was on the field for most of the second half as Rodgers tried to rally the Packers back. But the defense stood tall in that division-clinching win, just like they did last night. With the Vikings leading, 17-14, defensive end Brian Robison ended one drive by spiking the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and fumble luck finally went the Vikings’ way. Then, after the two-minute warning, Waynes made a heck of a play to pick off Rodgers and seal the win.
3. The new-look Vikings offensive line was officially a mess in its first two games together. That fivesome was more or less given a pass for its poor run-blocking performance in Tennessee because they prevented Shaun Hill from getting sacked. But in the win against the Packers, the struggles in the running game persisted and Bradford was sacked four times while getting hit hard on several occasions. The numbers are troubling. Based on the performance of the linemen the past two weeks, they are on pace to allow 224 pressures in 16 games, according to Pro Football Focus, and before getting injured last night Peterson averaged about seven inches — yes, that’s inches, not yards — this season before getting hit by a defender. This group still has plenty of time to come together before the playoff push. But at this rate, will Bradford still be standing by the time it happens?
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. What did the MRI on Peterson’s right knee show this morning?
2. With Bradford slinging the ball like he was, why did the Vikings choose to run a play with Jerick McKinnon handing off to Cordarrelle Patterson to start their first drive after his second touchdown pass of the night?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. Once again, Rodgers gave the Vikings fits with his legs. He scrambled for 29 yards and a touchdown on three runs and stretched the defense on a few occasions when he bought time but didn’t take off the run. Don’t look now, but up next is Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the reigning league MVP. Not only is Newton a nightmare on designed QB keepers and read-option runs, but he is also capable of eating up chunks of turf if the Vikings are unable to keep contain this upcoming Sunday. They better scan the tape from yesterday and quickly come up with corrections.